The US president can do much more than talk to persuade Putin to allow humanitarian aid into Syria.
The new year began with news of Iran-backed forces shelling US positions in Syria and Iraq. While some interpret these as a response from Tehran to the assassination of General Qasem Soleimani at the beginning of 2020, the development was expected: Iran is targeting the US presence in Iraq and Syria because it wants to secure its corridor of access to the Mediterranean and Lebanon.
Tehran has no intention of leaving the Americans behind the line. Luckily for them, Washington does not seem to have a policy on its presence in Syria yet, despite President Joe Biden's promise to reassert US leadership to solve the crisis in Syria.
Increasing Iranian attacks on American sites and American allies, and the failure of the nuclear talks, call for tough choices that the Biden administration is reluctant to make.
On the one hand, the United States can leave, as it did in Afghanistan and probably wants to do in Iraq. In this scenario, they leave energy resources in the hands of the Assad regime as well as their so-called partner, the YPG/PKK - which is recognised as a terror organistion by the US, EU and Turkiye - whose leaders are increasingly staggering to Moscow. Despite Turkiye's warnings of such a development, Washington has not responded to increasingly open talks between the YPG, Russians and Assad.
On the other hand, the Biden administration has the tools to strengthen Washington’s positions vis-a-vis its rivals.
The Al Tanf base, where US special forces are partnering with Syrian rebels, is an opportunity for pressure over Iranian positions, for example. It is no coincidence that Iran and Assad are worried about this base because it could be a problem for regaining control of areas in eastern Syria. There are reports that Assad has already ordered the head of intelligence to prepare to retake control of the territory.
Biden also wields the powerful Caesar Act, designed to pressure the Assad regime. It is time Washington used this tool seriously.
Unfortunately, Biden persists in its wavering stance on the Syrian conflict, which has sparked joint statements by senior US officials calling on the president not to allow Assad's legitimacy through tacit diplomacy.
The recent energy project related to Lebanon and linked to the Assad regime was approved by the United States. As Arab states begin to renew relations with the Assad regime, the approval of such a project has drawn serious criticism in the West, particularly since the Caesar Act mandates sanctions against any company or country that helps Assad. To date, the Biden administration has never invoked it.
Politicisation of aid
The United States can also project its influence through soft power instruments, such as humanitarian aid, and thus take positions in the hearts and minds of the local population. However, in such an attempt, Biden took a step that was insufficient in the face of Russian efforts.
In July last year, Biden succeeded in convincing his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, that Russia must abandon its position “defending Syrian sovereignty" and agree that a humanitarian aid corridor to the rebel territories in northwestern Syria be maintained.
The issue of humanitarian aid in Syria is a serious problem in the Security Council. The aid delivery mechanism is vital for millions of Syrians who have lost their homes and jobs due to the war. The term is voted on annually, and Russia has refused to extend a compromise reached a year earlier, turning the humanitarian operation into an instrument of geopolitics. The Kremlin wants all aid to pass through checkpoints controlled by the Assad regime, and therefore the Russian military administration.
But what does the humanitarian situation in Syria have to do with anything else? A lot. In fact, in July 2021, the United States and Russia mentioned Syria amid talks on broader issues, including Afghanistan and cyberattacks on American targets. Syria continues to be a part of the talks between Washington and Moscow in the context of the Ukraine crisis.
Russia continues to pressure the United States to reduce its presence in areas where it wants to assert its interests. Humanitarian aid has become a tool in this regard and the United States does not have many options to counter the Kremlin. Talks on aid supplies quickly escalated into a debate over the role the United States could play in Syria and whether it could build a stronger presence in the region at all.
Biden is running out of time. Attacks on US interests in Syria will intensify, and there is logic in that. Iran, for example, sees Washington as a force that wants to get away and is unwilling to commit. The coalition against Daesh, which is often used as an argument for Washington to continue operations at the Syria-Iraq border, will not hold for much longer. In the context of a broad conflict of interest, the United States doesn’t have the luxury of abandoning its position in Syria.
It is no coincidence that Syria is seen as a strategic asset. For Russia, the country is a platform for influence in the Middle East and the Mediterranean; for Iran, it is an opportunity to harden the invasion that has been going on for years through Iraq to Lebanon.
If the United States intends to face the challenges posed by its opponents, it must view Syria as an opportunity, not a burden borne in a battle against a radical group. Biden can do much more than talk to persuade Putin to allow humanitarian aid into Syria.
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